Born in the dark, Utah’s redistricting maps are the worst in decades, Robert Gehrke writes

Lacking transparency and driven by politics, it’s hard to imagine how the Utah Legislature could have more ignored “the Utah way.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Utah politicians love to pay lip service to the vaunted “Utah way,” a sort of Beehive exceptionalism that suggests we do things differently, better than other states.

But Utah’s latest redistricting sham shows that the “Utah way” is gaslighting and a lie.

Rep. Paul Ray, the co-chair of the Legislature’s Redistricting Committee, said their goal was to listen to the will of the people, when in reality they did nothing of the sort.

The people were clear in what they wanted. The majority of the Utahns voted for the creation of an independent, nonpartisan commission to draw the maps, and they did.

The Utah Independent Redistricting Commission did their work in a remarkably transparent and inclusive way, holding more than 30 meetings around the state and producing maps that were perhaps not perfect, but at least based in some fundamental principles and not partisan power grabs.

Now, I recognize it was probably foolish to think the Legislature would have just signed off on the independent commission’s proposals.

It wasn’t foolish to hope that they would maybe give some consideration to the recommendations. Nor was it naive to hope that maybe the Legislature would at least engage in a credible public process and listen to voters.

But while holding out hope, deep down I knew, based on years of watching the Legislature, that it was unlikely and had some sense of how bad a worst-case scenario could be. The reality was worse than I ever imagined.

The public process the Legislature pretended to engage in was a sham, an inconvenience they had to go through to try to lend legitimacy to their charade.

They gave zero credence or consideration to the independent commission’s maps. As I reported last month, the Senate map was drawn in secret, at least a week before the independent commission finished its work, and was scarcely changed before it was finally revealed to the public late Friday night.

In contrast to the independent commission’s maps that were drawn in clear public view — you can watch hours and hours of the tedious process on YouTube — the Legislature’s maps were shrouded in secrecy and focused on partisan self-interest.

The last-minute release of the maps seemed calculated to try to quash a public outcry — a lesson learned perhaps from the Legislature’s tax reform disaster, where public backlash forced them to repeal the reform bill or face the prospect of voters doing it for them through the ballot box.

The congressional map this shameful process produced shouldn’t have been surprising. It was a pure political power play that anyone could have seen coming.

Learning their lesson from the 2010 maps that didn’t go far enough to marginalize Democrats, they set out to further crack Democratic votes in Salt Lake County, to protect Rep. Burgess Owens in the 4th Congressional District and solidify Republican power.

They didn’t care that it deprives many Salt Lake County residents of any meaningful representation or that it also dilutes the voice of rural residents.

They didn’t care that it divides communities of interest — one of the Legislature’s own redistricting criteria — by dividing minority votes in West Valley City from those in Kearns, for example.

This is the third time I’ve covered redistricting, and judging both on the product and the procedure, it is the most brazen and shameful abuse that I’ve seen.

Now, I’ve heard from a lot of people who say that that’s how the game is played — that might makes right and that the overriding goal is protecting power at all costs.

But is that the Utah way?

Or is it what we’re seeing in states like Colorado, California, Arizona and others where independent commissions are drawing maps with the aim of giving everyone fair, meaningful representation?

Listening to the hundreds of Utahns who turned out Monday afternoon in person and online to express their opposition to the maps and support for the independent commission’s proposals — that answer is pretty clear.

If Paul Ray and the other members of the redistricting committee truly want to listen to the will of the voters, there is still time.

They should go back to the drawing board and make revisions based on the hundreds and hundreds of comments they have received and produce a map that is at least defensible with a straight face.

The optimist in me hopes that they will. The realist knows they won’t and these maps will likely pass with overwhelming Republican support and that Gov. Spencer Cox will sign them into law.

If that happens, voters should reinvent the Utah way and commit themselves over the next 10 years to voting every single legislator who voted for these maps out of office and holding them accountable for this disgrace.